Why Does My Child Still Have Temper Tantrums?

By Bob Cunningham, EdM
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Q

My fourth grader still has temper tantrums. Why? And what can I do about it?

A

It’s common for young kids to have temper tantrums when they don’t get their way. In these angry or frustrated outbursts, kids may yell, cry, hold their breath, or even hit. However, by the age of 8 or 9, tantrums have tapered off for most kids. So I can understand why you might be concerned.

Some think of an older child throwing a tantrum as spoiled or disrespectful, or they judge the child’s family. But the truth isn’t so simple. Tantrums happen for a reason—a child wants something and is overwhelmed by emotion. They are often caused by not being able to communicate needs.

As kids grow up, most learn to handle strong emotions. They develop language skills to express feelings like frustration and anger, and they learn how to negotiate with family about what they want.

However, not all kids learn these skills at the same pace, and some older kids face specific struggles that can make tantrums continue. Here are some of those causes:

  • Emotional control: Some kids have more trouble than others with managing emotions. They may be very passionate or impulsive. Or they may experience feelings more strongly than others. ADHD, for example, can make it hard for kids to calm down, so their emotions boil over into tantrums or anger.

  • Language difficulties: It’s not easy for some kids to explain their feelings or experiences. It’s doubly hard when they’re worked up. When a child struggles with communication, tantrums are a common result.

  • Anxiety: Some kids get stressed and worried about certain activities. If kids are afraid of a particular situation or thing, they may throw a tantrum to avoid it. Because kids are often good at hiding their fears from family, it may not be obvious that anxiety is the source of a tantrum.

  • Trouble in school: Kids who struggle in school with learning or behavior often face situations where they feel like a failure. For these kids, throwing a tantrum may be a coping mechanism. They may have a tantrum after school to avoid doing homework, for instance.

  • Overstimulation: There are also kids who are very sensitive to their environment. Bright lights, loud noises, and crowds can agitate them. When they get overstimulated, they may lash out in what looks like a tantrum. But it’s actually a meltdown or reaction they can’t control.

That’s not to say that what you do doesn’t matter. Sometimes older kids throw tantrums because it’s worked in the past. For instance, if a family gives in every time a 6-year-old throws a tantrum for candy before dinner, the child may keep doing it at 8 or 9 and beyond. Since a tantrum worked for candy, the child might also try it in other situations. That’s why it’s important not to establish a pattern of rewarding tantrums.

What can you do if your older child is still having temper tantrums?

First, when a tantrum happens, acknowledge what your child wants, but resist the temptation to end a tantrum by giving in. Avoid reasoning with kids when they are upset. As long as your child isn’t in danger, sometimes the best response is to calmly state your decision, and then ignore or wait for your child to calm down. Wait at least an hour before you try to talk with your child about the tantrum.

Make sure you’re clear and consistent with your child about expectations. If kids know that dinner is always at 6:30 and there’s no candy before dinner, there’s less likely to be a tantrum about it. If a routine like mealtime has to change for a day, let your child know in advance and remind them when possible.

Second, in calm moments, help your child develop emotional and communication skills. You can show your child how to use self-calming strategies, like taking a few deep breaths to relax. You can also remind your child to “use their words” when they want something. One helpful phrase to use is “What would make things better?”

When your child uses calming strategies or communicates in a mature way, be sure to recognize and praise that behavior.

Third, understand what’s triggering your child’s tantrum. Most kids who have frequent tantrums have them in very predictable situations. Generally, it’s homework time, bedtime or time to stop playing, or when kids are tired or hungry.

Plan for these situations. For example, does your child explode when it’s time to stop playing a video game and come to dinner? Try giving a 10-minute and also a five-minute warning ahead of time. Did your child have a long day of school and activities? Maybe let them do their chores tomorrow. And if your child is overtired or not feeling well, wait to have any challenging conversations until the next day if possible.

Responding to temper tantrums is something everyone with a child has to do. By understanding their causes and planning how to respond, you can help reduce or stop them from happening.

Are you unsure whether your child is having tantrums or meltdowns? Compare the signs.

About the Author

About the Author

Bob Cunningham, EdM 

serves as executive director of learning development at Understood.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Ellen Braaten, PhD 

is the director of LEAP and codirector of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, both at Massachusetts General Hospital.

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